Links for June, 2021

Coronavirus, horse racing, kind of a book review, and local politics

In this issue

Links

  • The Media’s Lab Leak Fiasco (Slow Boring) Recommended. For years, the media has been writing big articles about the dangers of viral research where highly infectious diseases are handled and engineered in laboratories and the risks inherent in such an operation. For example, The New Yorker in 2014, in describing the mishandling of a very virulent form of influenza at the CDC said that this, “presents a harrowing reminder that even the finest scientists in the world’s best labs can make mistakes with potentially deadly consequences.” Yet in the early months of the pandemic, the idea that the virus might have come from a lab in Wuhan that did the same type of research was roundly derided by eminent scientists and most reputable media outlets as impossible and an example of right-wing conspiracy theorists. Within the last few weeks, the same media and the same eminent scientists are now saying, “Well, it’s certainly possible. Definitely worth looking into at least.” Anyway, I liked this article because it’s a sort of stupid-tweet-by-stupid-tweet replay of how exactly this happened. And like many recent tales of media intrigue, it all starts with Senator Tom Cotton.

  • Are high-interest loans predatory? (National Bureau of Economic Research) It is often argued that people might take on too much high-cost debt because they are present focused or overoptimistic about how soon they will repay. We measure borrowers' present focus and overoptimism using an experiment with a large payday lender. Although the most inexperienced quartile of borrowers underestimate their likelihood of future borrowing, the more experienced three quartiles predict correctly on average.

  • The gambler who cracked the horse-racing code (Bloomberg)

  • Can Horse Racing Survive? (The New Yorker)

  • Into the Mystical and Inexplicable World of Dowsing (Outside Online) For centuries, dowsers have claimed the ability to find groundwater, precious metals, and other quarry using divining rods and an uncanny intuition. Is it the real deal or woo-woo?

  • What does Cloudflare do? (HHhypergrowth) I became interested about a year and a half ago in what could be described as ‘internet infrastructure’ companies like Cloudflare (but also businesses like Visa, Snowflake, and Stripe which fall into the same category) after reading a number of Ben Thompson’s newsletters at Stratechery.com. There are a lot of tech companies devoted to making the internet function better and more efficiently that are not necessarily visible to end-users. But on reading about them, you start to realize they are solving big, difficult problems that it’s hard to know even exist unless you are deeply involved in the industry. I’ll admit that I’m mainly interested in these as potential investments. (See also: Cloudflare Blog on worker-durable objects)

  • Caught in the Study Web (Cybernaut) Exploring Gen Z’s Ambitious and Anxiety-Fuelled Pursuit of Straight A’s Across YouTube, TikTok, Discord, and Twitter. “Study Web feels like a safe internet harbor for a generation that’s found itself adrift.” Recommended. I think the author’s stance that these kids are misguided and should instead reject the premise of academic striving entirely or seek professional mental health rather than commiseration with like-minded peers is wrongheaded in important ways.

    • One, there seems to be a bias toward institutional, top-down solutions over organically created mechanisms for self-help even if it’s not clear that the former would be more effective. Partly, I think this is a “not-invented-here”-type of complaint where a solution created by a bunch of high-school kids could not possibly be better than one created by educated professionals like themselves.

    • Second, the author appears to be solving the problem as he’d like it to be rather than the problem as it is. It’d be great if all these kids could just realize life is about more than academics, but it also requires government, society, and a whole web of perverse incentives that heavily-subsidize and make educational achievement appear to be the only path into the middle-class to be realigned as well. I think the kids are being pragmatic here and that their solutions probably do more to help them day-to-day than whatever the author is suggesting.

    • Third, the idea that students just need to rebel against the system feels like it’s own sort of generational cliché. I wonder how old the author is.

Books I’m Reading

Thoughts on a book I read

I recently finished Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Stephen Bloom. The book was published in 2000 and covers events that occurred 1980s and ‘90s. You can read an old book review at the New York Times.

First, a summary

Postville is an Iowa farm town of 1,500 people founded a century ago by Lutherans. Mostly Germans, then some Swedes and Norwegians. They like Christmas carols, church bake sales, and hunting. In the 1980s, a sect of Orthodox Hasidic Jews known as Lubivitchers renovate the decaying meat processing plant on the outskirts of town and turn it into a kosher slaughterhouse and packing facility. The Postville residents initially welcome them and the economic activity they bring. They create hundreds of jobs. 

But when Stephen Bloom, a journalist and fellow Jew—though admittedly a much less devout one, goes to talk to long-time residents of the town, feelings are mixed. The realtor loves them because they buy lots of houses. The owner of the shoe store loves them, because they have large families and will buy eight pairs of shoes at once. The local minister preaches tolerance and the wonders of diversity during his Sunday sermons. But other residents are less sanguine. Bloom talks to a few at Ginger’s, the local coffee shop:

“They’re all about the dollars,” one man said slowly, shaking his head. “They do what they please whenever they want, and everyone else be damned!”

Another:

“The Jewish people say they’re so good for local businesses, but they’re bringing in all these heavy appliances on trucks from New York. Do they think that we don’t know what they’re doing? They think we’re that dumb? They’ve set up their households, they put in whole new kitchens, but they don’t buy any of their appliances from the local merchants.”

Bloom is almost sympathetic. Almost:

The lament was heartfelt and sincere, but at the same time, what the locals were describing was so…well, Jewish. Hearing their complaint, I repeated to myself the old Jewish refrain: “What, and pay retail?”

But then things get weird. Some of those things are only a little weird. The Lubivitchers refuse to cut their grass and let their yards grow wild. The men wear black woolen pants in the heat of summer, wide brimmed fedoras, and long beards and speak only among themselves in a mix of Yiddish and Hebrew as they walk 4 or 5 abreast so that other residents have to cross to the other side of the street to get by them. They mostly act as if the non-Lubivitcher residents of the town don’t exist at all. The woman do not make eye contact. They lobby the community pool to offer Lubivitcher-only swim hours so the men and the kids can swim without mixing with the townspeople. (There are no female lifeguards, so Lubivitcher women cannot swim).

Are the townspeople just too close-minded to accept people who aren’t born and bred Christian? Do they need to be forced out of their comfort zone? Do they have any right to expect everyone to act, well, Iowan? Are they prejudiced? Are they anti-Semitic?

The old-timer halfway down the table had heard enough. He laid his leathery palms on the table and looked at everyone. “They’ll take whatever they can get. The Jews, as long as they have their hands in someone else’s pocket, then they’ll stay. That’s their history—to take as much as they can.”

Sometimes it definitely seems like it.

When the Lubivitchers do interact with the townspeople, they tend not to be received well. They go into stores and groceries and hair salons and haggle about the price of everything. The proprietors find this insulting, because to them it suggests they were trying to take advantage of people with the original price. They run up tabs at the shoe store and don't pay. The cut in line at the grocery store and when confronted refuse to budge. They flout local laws and open up businesses in their homes without the proper permits. They parade their wealth by building large, ostentatious homes on what becomes known as Kosher Hill in the historic part of town. They don’t try to integrate into the community at all.

Bloom is almost sympathetic. Almost. But he’s also trying to reconcile what he sees with his own roots. He finds something noble and nostalgic about the Lubivitchers fidelity to their faith.

“The Jews are lambs surrounded by seventy wolves,” Rabbi Moshe Feller, the Lubavitcher rabbi, explain to me over the phone one night. “We’ve got to stick close to each other and to the shepherd at all times. If we don’t, we might get eaten.”

Also during his conversation with Rabbi Feller:

I had asked the rabbi to explain how the Postville Hasidim could stay so close to the traditions of Chabad so far from their homeland. Rabbi Feller had told me, “If you’re committed to your faith, there is no culture shock. Postville and Crown Heights are one and the same.” I had though the rabbi’s comment absurd. How could two places—Postville, Iowa, and Crown Heights, Brooklyn—be any more different? But after getting shikker at the shul, I had to reconsider. This men’s club didn’t disband when the members walked out of the shul. Cultural, religious, and familial ties bound these men together twenty-four hours a day. There was no cultural friction for the Hasidim because they acknowledged nothing but their own insular reality and the Yiddishkeit surrounding it. What Hasidic Jews did in the secular world was of trifling importance when compared to their religious devotion. What occupied the minds of those who were righteous was uncompromising devotion to one another and to their religion.

[…]

“Wherever we go, we don’t adapt to the place or the people,” Lazar preached, as we rounded the corner of Reynolds Street. “It’s always been like that and always will be like that. It’s the place and the people who have to adapt to us.”

But as he delves more deeply into the Lubivitcher community, his perspective gets complicated. He stays the weekend with a Lubivitcher family, eats dinner with them, goes to the shul. He hears things he can’t so readily dismiss:

“I am a racist,” Lazar said, seemingly from nowhere. “Why is it that Israel has persisted to exist for so long? Why haven’t the Jews been extinguished after scores of attempts throughout history? That we are still here defies logic. There is only one answer. We are better and smarter. That’s why!”

While walking with Lazar down the street, they pass a group of townspeople and Bloom gives them a “Good morning!” while Lazar walks by without a word.

I wasn’t sure if I had committed a transgression. I couldn’t imagine Lazar complaining about my mixing with the goyim. But indeed, as we rounded Military Road, Lazar launched into a parable about how macaroni will always be macaroni, no matter how you dress it up. “You can put cheese in it, serve it as—what do you call it—Hamburger Helper, make a casserole out of it, but it’ll always be macaroni. You can only do so much with macaroni. Macaroni is macaroni. Right?'

I paused

“You follow me? You understand?”

“Yes, I understand,” I said, “if macaroni means what I think you want it to mean.”

“The goyim,” Lazar told me, as we crossed the street again, three blocks from the shul, “Will always be the goyim, no matter how nice they are to you. So what’s the point?”

Lazar’s comment underscored the Hasidim’s contempt for non-Jews, which wasn’t limited to the Postville gentiles, but all Christians. […] But if truth be told, Lazar’s anti-gentile sentiment wasn’t limited to just Hasidic Jews. The Hasidim put into practice what many Jews just talked about. Lazar’s gentile-bashing reminded me of the Yiddish aphorism Er shmekt nit un er shtinkt nit "(“He doesn’t smell and he doesn’t stink”) , used derisively to describe non-Jews, who are viewed as inconsequential and unimportant

And another Lazar gem:

To Lazar, bargaining was a thoroughly Jewish endeavor. Negotiating the lowest price wasn’t chutzpah, it was tradition. “I don’t feel like a Jew unless I bargain!” Lazar bellowed. “I feel bad when I don’t make a deal. That’s part of being a Jew! A Jew has to know he got something for the absolute lowest price—or he feels rotten.” If Lazar hadn’t been telling me this, I’d have thought it was one of the regulars at Ginger’s. Lazar meant what he said, and his remarks were totally anti-Semitic. If anyone else were saying this, Lazar would have him by the throat.

One thread of dramatic tension running through the book is a referendum by the city of Postville to annex the land that sits under the Lubivitcher slaughterhouse. Some of the townspeople think it might allow them exert some control over the slaughterhouse, collect taxes from it, etc. The owner of the slaughterhouse says he’ll pack up and leave if they do and considers it an effrontery. Some of the Postville residents would be alright with that. But Bloom feels there’s a wider importance:

The Postville annexation vote, scheduled for the first Tuesday in August, was the showdown in Postville, but it wasn’t set on an isolated cultural battlefield in Iowa. The larger issues surrounding the referendum spilled over to the rest of America. What happened in Postville signaled how willing Americans were to accept newcomers who believed they had a mandate from the Almighty to show up in your backyard and pronounce that the rules you had lived by were now null and void.

Ultimately, the town votes to annex the slaughterhouse, the Lubivitchers don’t leave, the slaughterhouse grows larger, and the tensions don’t really resolve themselves but get worse in some ways.

The success of the slaughterhouse has brought a host of problems to Postville. The influx of packinghouse workers to the area has changed the once safe and sleepy nature of the town. Last Christmas Eve, a clash broke out at Club 51 between two rival groups of Mexican workers, many of them employees at Agriprocessors and Iowa Turkey Products. A brawl of thirty people spilled out onto Lawler Street, with one man swinging a baseball bat and beaning a local woman. On New Year’s Eve, another clash broke out, this time between two groups of Russian and Kazakhstanian immigrants. The fighting escalated. One man was dragged two blocks by a van that sped down Green Street going thirty miles per hour. Two weeks later, a twenty-three-year old Hispanic man employed by Agriprocessors was shot in the head and killed in his Postville apartment in what police suspected was the result of heavy drinking and high testosterone.

The author does finally reach a conclusion about whose side he’s rooting for though:

Initially, I had gone to Postville to learn from the Hasidim, to share with them a sense of identity and belonging. Instead, what the Postville Hasidim ultimately offered me was a glimpse at the dark side of my own faith [that …] not only made the Postville locals wince, but made me wince, too. I didn’t want to partake in Hasidism’s vision that called on Jews to unite against the goyim and assimilation. The world, even in Iowa, was too bountiful to base my likes and dislikes solely on religion, and it was that fundamental difference that continued to gall me about the Postville Hasidim. […] You couldn’t become casual friends with them; it was all or nothing. They required total submission to their schema of right and wrong, Jew vs. Christian—or you were the enemy.

And:

Small towns don’t take kindly to outsiders coming in and passing judgment. But during my years in Postville, I grew to understand this tiny town. That most Postville people would go out of their way to help a stranger—any stranger. That a connection exists between the land and those who work it. That people in this rustic pocket of America rely on each other, and because of that, inextricable ties bound rural people together in a way city people can’t fathom. Postville kids still don’t lock their bikes when they go into the Casey’s for a pop. The locals still don’t put on their turn signals when they drive through town, because everyone knows where everyone else is going. People in Postville have gotten along just fine for more than 150 years. Until the Hasidim arrived, about the only connections Postville had with the rest of the world were corn, hog, and feed prices; Hawkeye football; and the three I&M trains that rolled through town daily.

Now that’s all changed. Postville is no longer insulated or singular. As our nation’s cultural contours continue to change, Postville has become a social experiment challenging the theory that if people of different cultures live together, they ought to get along. Because of the Hasidim, Postville has finally joined modern America. Or maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe Postville is out front of where the rest of America is eventually headed.

Some incomplete thoughts on liberalism and assimilation

Liberalism is a technology for preventing war. Instead of killing each other when we disagree, we decide that "your rights end where mine begin" and go about our separate ways. Your rights include the freedom to associate with people who share your values and the right to coordinate based on those values to, among other things, decide on laws, enforce norms, and create communities. Unfortunately, we are not all individuals floating freely in space, coalescing into communities as necessary or desirable. Our communities inevitably exist within other, larger communities.

Judging by the state of contemporary discourse, the question of how much a sub-community can or should diverge from its host community in values, norms, and laws is incredibly contentious. One example might be state abortion laws. It would be great if the sub-community never interacted with the parent community and then they could mostly do whatever they wanted and because of liberalism, no one would really care.

But there are no closed systems in society. Nested communities inevitably share resources through things like commerce, laws, taxes, and infrastructure. Again, judging by our contemporary discourse the question of how much sharing resources carries with it the obligation to accept or abide by each culture’s values, customs, and norms is incredibly contentious.  

I liked this book because it seems to distill these sometimes abstract concerns into very concrete particulars that expose a level of complexity that often gets glossed over in discussions on multiculturalism and diversity.

For instance, what if the values, customs, and beliefs of a community include things like, "I, and my people, are chosen by God, and therefore uniquely blessed, special, and better than you"? As far as that remains a belief, something inside your head that has no effect on your actions, liberalism works well. Believe what you want to believe. But as far as that belief interacts with reality, i.e. one acts out the logical implications of such beliefs, then liberalism as a principle can become harder to apply.

Bloom speaks positively about assimilation, learning to do as the Romans do, etc. I think there's something to this. It's generally how I feel. If you’re Baptist, you can worship Jesus and sing praise songs, if you’re Jewish you can study the Talmud, and if you’re a Unitarian, well, as Somerset Maugham jokes, “A Unitarian very earnestly disbelieves in almost everything that anybody else believes, and he has a very lively sustaining faith in he doesn’t quite know what.”) At the same time, it sometimes seems like the inevitable end-state of assimilation is a watered-down culture where nobody takes anything they believe too seriously and no principle is a hill worth dying on.

There’s something respectable about the cultural cohesion of the Lubivitchers. They can depend on one another. They are extremely invested in their families and in their communities. They have provided a great amount of economic prosperity to the town. Their goals and their values are clear. And they should be able to choose their friends based on adherence to those values.

But the same could be said of the original Postville residents. And I think some of their complaints are legitimate. The Lubivitchers really should pay for their shoes! And get a permit before they open up their bakery.

I don’t have a principled solution to this problem. But it seems clear to me that it’s more complicated than that people are racist, anti-Semitic, close-minded, or whatever. One answer, which is really just an interesting thought experiment can be found here.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to requiring all sub-cultures adopt some neutral principle that is more important even than beliefs like “I, and my people, are chosen by God, and therefore uniquely blessed, special, and better than you." The best one is probably the Principle of Harm. Do what you want unless it harms someone else. This usually means most things are fine except violence and theft. The downside is that we we foreclose some subset of all possibly communities and value systems. Like ones that involve stealing from other communities. And when people violate this principle we must not be afraid to call it out as the destructive and malign force that it us. Conversely, we should be accepting of things short of this. Including freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Because it’s much better than a war of all against all.

Thoughts on Local Politics in Wauwatosa

One thing I’ve recently come to enjoy doing is watching local city council meetings. Fortunately, I don’t have to, you know, drive to City Hall or anything. They hold meetings over Zoom, record them, and put them on the internet for all to see. They even publish minutes and agendas and supplementary materials. Wauwatosa has about 50,000 people, with 16 elected alderman, two from each of 8 districts. Each district has 3 wards.

Usually, agenda items are mundane. So-and-so wants an exemption to build a fence higher than 6 ft. around his house or build a garage that exceeds the minimum rear setback requirements. Actually, even those things can be contentious. That guy who wanted to build his fence was totally not allowed to build that fence. But sometimes there are even more contentious things. For instance, a few months ago there was considerable discussion about denying a business owner a permit to open a new restaurant on the site of his previous restaurant which had closed down due to the pandemic. He had apparently tweeted some unkind things about Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ mask mandate the year before, considered (but did not do as far as I understand) keeping his restaurant open in defiance of various public health orders, as well as other seemingly un-neighborly things like playing music in his restaurant too loudly and making lots of calls for assistance to the police department.

Fortunately, in my opinion, cooler heads prevailed and it was considered a potentially bad precedent to deny someone the opportunity to open a business and create jobs even if he was kind of a dick, and also, it wasn’t clear that he made any more calls to the police than other similarly-sized businesses.

But there are two more recent contentious topics that are worth mentioning. The first just makes no sense to me, and I suspect ulterior motives. The other highlights an interesting question about the proper role of government.

Reducing the Size of City Council

For several months there’s been a spirited debate about reducing the size of the city council from 16 to 12 aldermen. The interesting thing to me is that none of the arguments for doing so are very persuasive. Proponents of reducing the size of the council variously argue that:

  1. A nonbinding referendum was done 10 years ago, and the citizens voted to reduce it.

  2. There’s not enough diversity on the city council and reducing the size of the council will increase diversity.

  3. The council is too large and inefficient and reducing its size will make it smaller and more efficient.

Those seem to be the big ones. Wauwatosa is about 85% white, 5% black, and the remaining 10% a mix of various other races. All the aldermen are white. Three, I think, are women. (2) seems especially nonsensical, because as you reduce the number of representatives you would logically expect there to be a smaller chance of getting minority representation. There is one sense in which this isn’t completely silly and it’s that part of the proposal involves increasing the number of districts from 8 to 12, therefore having each alderman represent one district. Importantly, however, increasing the number of districts is somewhat independent of the size of the council. They could make 16 districts, keep the size of the council the same, and create an even higher probability of getting minority representation.

(1) may be true but it seems notable that this referendum was done 10 years ago. Many of those opposing the size reduction pointed this out. But also, there’s been no discussion of why this referendum was done or what the exact wording of the referendum was. Why did people want to reduce its size 10 years ago? Was it to increase diversity and efficiency? Are the factors that made people vote ‘yes’ 10 years ago still relevant? No idea.

(2) is plausibly true but no real argument has been made about how exactly this will work. A smaller council could just as easily make it less efficient if, for instance, the workload was the same but spread across fewer people perhaps making it take longer to accomplish the same things. Efficiency also seems to be the wrong metric. Or at least vague. Efficient at what exactly?

My impression is that the city council members are smart, thoughtful people, so I suspect there is more to this story.

Reducing Panhandling in the Medians

There has apparently been an increase in the number of panhandlers congregating in the medians asking for money from people at stoplights. A city staff member briefs the council on plans to conduct a 30-day qualitative study on the root causes of this panhandling by, essentially, asking panhandlers what they’re doing there and trying to understand what services they might need.

One alderman seems irritated that the suggestions he made about putting obstructions in the median and posting signs not to give money to panhandlers is not part of this effort and the city is instead wasting time on doing the same things that have been tried and that have failed in so many other cities. The city staff member responded by again about identifying root causes and, if I recall, throwing something about equity in there too and the council member thinks this sounds like a lot of “word salad.”

I don’t know anything about panhandling. But the more abstract disagreement about whether the government needs to fix “root causes” versus simply dealing with the symptoms of complex, deep-seated problems like poverty, homelessness, etc. is an interesting one. There’s something attractive about fixing root-causes. Because when you fix them, the problem goes away forever. If you just deal with symptoms, you must deal with them over and over and over again and may, presumably, end up spending more time and money than if you’d simply fixed the underlying problem to begin with.

I think there’s something to this.

On the other hand, root-causes are hard. Hard to identify and hard to fix. It’s not clear that the government can do this effectively. And because root causes are harder, they probably will cost more time and money to identify and fix. Meanwhile, people are still panhandling. If you let this go on long enough, maybe you just get San Francisco. San Francisco spends a lot on homelessness, mental health services, shelters, etc. It’s totally about attacking root causes. But at some point, people would just like to not have their car broken into or needing to step over feces in the streets.

There are root causes but there are also situational factors that make some options seem better than others at any particular moment. It’s not clear that it’s always a better idea or a better use of resources to focus on the former rather than the latter.